BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
Lake Hamilton standout Justin Crutchmar (5-11, 185) knows exactly what it is like to be in the winner’s circle, having won three straight state wrestling championships.
But before he goes after a fourth consecutive individual title, he would like to help lead his Wolves football squad to a team one.
Lake Hamilton, 9-3 last season, will begin that quest Friday night when it travels to play at rival Hot Spring Lakeside in the 2022 season opener for both.
“I think it is just a great kickoff game,” Crutchmar said. “To go against your crosstown rival, especially since they made it our first game. Everybody is so excited. I am really exited to go into the game. It is a rivalry and it is always a big game for our town.”
Lake Hamilton head coach Tommy Gilleran returns three starters on offense and seven on defense with Crutchmar lining up on both sides of the football.
Crutchmar rushed for 1,225 yards and 12 touchdowns last season while filling in for injured Owen Miller and also had 55 tackles, 13 for lost yardage, 2 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles from his all-state safety spot.
“He is a tremendous athlete,” Gilleran said. “He just makes so many plays for us on offense and defense and we are going to play him quite a bit on both sides.”
Crutchmar caught 8 passes for 238 yards and three more scores as a junior and will be used more in the passing game this season per Gilleran.
“He is dynamic catching the ball out of the backfield and can get in space and make things happen, but he can also run the ball,” Gilleran said. “He really gives us a lot of opportunity to make big plays down the field.”
Crutchmar believes his wrestling aids him on the gridiron.
“It helps so much,” Crutchmar said. “It helps my lateral quickness, it helps with my tackling and basically with my endurance.”
It had been reported that Crutchmar was planning on wrestling at North Carolina, but he says that is inaccurate.
“I am not committed to North Carolina and I don’t know where anybody got that from,” Crutchmar said. “North Carolina isn’t even in the picture anymore. I said my freshman year that it would be cool to go there and said that like one time.
“I am going to wrestle in college, but my real goal is to play football.”
He is getting interest in both sports.
The schools that given me the most attention (for football) are Ouachita, UCA, Harding and Texas State,” Crutchmar said.
“For wrestling, it’s UALR, Air Force and North Dakota State is talking to me a little bit.”
Lake Hamilton made it to the 2020 Class 6A state championship before falling to conference foe Greenwood.
“His expectation is to win a state championship and he is going to make sure everybody around him is where they need to be so we have the opportunity to do it,” Gilleran said of Crutchmer.
Crutchmar is part of a senior class that Gilleran thinks is ready to come into its own.
“This class here is one we have been excited about for a long time,” Gilleran said. “They had a real good junior high season back three years ago and know they are seniors and have just really improved a lot and gotten a lot better.
“The linemen have developed and the skill kids keep getting better with our quarterback play probably going to be the best since I have been here.”
Easton Hurley (5-10, 165) is that quarterback and he showed promise against West Memphis in the playoffs while completing 6 of 9 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns.
Hurley was filling in for starter Grant Bearden, who was injured.
“He can run a little bit, but he is a really good thrower so he is going to give us an opportunity more in the passing game than we have had since I have been here, but also we will still be able to run the ball consistently,” Gilleran said.
The big key is replacing four of the five starting offensive linemen, including Arkansas State signee Chase Jessup and Ouachita signee Dylan Horton.
Senior center Brayden Aitken (6-1, 255) is the lone returnee.
“We lost the entire offensive line except for our center,” Gilleran said. “That was a huge thing for us and so we were kind of worried about that. We lost two college players off that football team and we don’t have that this year, but I do feel like we really have some good ones.
“We went to three team camps this summer and I thought we competed well, scored a lot and made a lot of things happen with this younger group. Well, they are not a young group as they are seniors, but they didn’t play much last year.”
Greenwood, Pulaski Academy and Little Rock Christian have all won state championships in the last few seasons in different classifications and are now all part of a loaded nine-member 6A-West race.
“Those three teams alone are going to give people fits and then you have the rest of the conference is going to make you work as well,” Gilleran said. “…There is no easy week for us so we have got to continue to strive every week to get better every week.”
The Wolves began the 2021 slate with an 8-0 start before dropping a heartbreaking 42-41 to Benton.
“We learned that we all can’t be focused on one loss because after we lost a tough game to Benton, we were all mostly out of it because we wanted to win that one so much,” Crutchmar said. “We were so close to winning it and I think it just kind of trickled down to the games after that.
“That won’t happen this year.”